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What does it mean to be Asian American?

by Stephen Margelony-Lajoie, posted 04/13/2012


On April 3, 2010 the Yuri Kochiyama Cultural Center sponsored a lecture with Professor C. N. Le titled “What does it mean to be Asian American?” Prof. Le, director of the Asian and Asian American Studies Certificate Program, began his presentation with a slideshow that gave a brief history of the often forgotten, ongoing fight Asian Americans or Asian immigrants have had to fight for their basic rights. What was most provocative about this slideshow were the case studies of two cases that revealed a surprise most people in the room had never heard of: that there was once a time when Asian Americans weren’t trying to prove that they were equal to Caucasian Americans, they were trying to prove that they were Caucasian Americans.

This sparked an intense post-lecture discussion that made it apparent that the audience of the lecture wasn’t there to necessarily decipher what it means to be Asian American. People soon discovered that the real issue at hand was trying to discover what it means to just be American for minorities after one member of the audience pointed out that the participants of the discussion were unintentionally making ‘White’ the equivalent of ‘American’. So, what does it mean to be American? The answer should be citizenship or even pride in the United States but, to the 21st Century society of the States, is the answer only skin deep?

The discussion eventually shifted to figuring out how one can be successful at being American; both socially and career-wise. In order to not only be seen as American by one’s peers but also become successful in one’s career field, there is a price. In order to become successful and maybe even powerful, there seems to be a trend of having to sacrifice one’s cultural roots in order to adapt to the “Whiteness” that seems necessary to advance in any field. For instance, examine the advertising industry. America’s media is constantly flooded with images of only attractive, mostly Caucasian men and women despite the ethnicities of any of the actual advertisers. This can even be seen in Hollywood. An Asian man is confined to the role of high school nerd while a Caucasian man has the option to play a superhero, a villain, a romantic interest and a multitude of other roles. However, those who do sacrifice their cultural roots and try to adapt to social “White” norms still fair better than those who don’t. Anyone brave enough to attempt to step outside of these norms and represent diverse cultures will usually be criticized, never receive any amount of success and ultimately fail at their mission.

To question what it means to be Asian American or even just American has an answer that just can’t be found in an hour long lecture and discussion. It’s already been asked for decades in the United States. Still, not a single person left that night without questioning the present state of this country. Both Professor C.N. Le and the Yuri Kochiyama Cultural Center were successful at sparking thought and that’s what made the presentation so powerful. The question of what it means to be Asian American wasn’t answered, but many people probably went home last evening with the curiosity and the will to find the answer.